Lying V. Not Telling The Truth: Atlas’s “Stranger Than Fiction”

The difference between lying and not telling the truth is intent.  A huge difference also lies between interpreting situations and altering facts.  James Atlas’s “Stranger Than Fiction” discusses Kitty Kelley’s biography of Nancy Reagan, and how the facts are “facts,” as in questionable.  Most recently, Kitty Kelley has written a biography of Oprah Winfrey, a rather bold move considering that Oprah is the most powerful woman in the universe (hyperbole or fact?– you decide–and I guess your deciding shows how truth and fiction really do teeter on a thin wire).  While Kitty Kelley is looking to tell all, Janet Malcolm, writer of “The Journalist and the Murderer” admitted to fabricating quotes. 

That’s the difference–Kitty Kelley bends the truth and Janet Malcolm breaks it.

But speaking of Oprah (see the power?  I can’t stop talking about her once I start), let’s get into a little James Frey nostalgia.  He’s the author of A Million Little Pieces.  Oprah loved it and promoted his book.  Then she found out some of it was made up.  The events were kind of real, but Frey changed little details.  In the book, he says a woman hangs herself; in real life, she overdosed on pills.  These little differences added up to one big lie in Oprah’s eyes.  So Oprah invites (read: forces) Frey back and proceeds to berate him for an hour.  Then she apologized later on, saying that certain parts were interesting.  Then she apologized to her audience after that, saying that lying is never acceptable and the truth is important.  Then she apologized to Frey a while later for villyfiying him. 

Moral of the story: Don’t mess with Oprah Winfrey.

In any case, I teach my Comp I students–and really all my classes–to evaluate sources for credibility.  Some of the guidelines are: use sources with long-standing reliable publishers, avoid sources that have lost credibility or were never credible in the first place (Frey, The Inquirer), take care with satirical sources like The Daily Show, and use controversial sources with care (Bill O’Reilly, Michael Moore).  Atlas says, “We can’t always know the truth, but we can know whom to believe.” Yes, evaluating sources is the map to truth.

The other example I use is Jayson Blair, ex-New York Times reporter who faked stories and quotes, plagiarized other publications and filed fake expense reports to make it appear he was traveling on assignment when he was actually at his home in Brooklyn.

However, Atlas brings up an interesting aspect about the truth of quotes and context–fidelity.  Even if a writer writes the quote word for word, the truth of the quote is not there unless the writer captures the spirit in which it is stated.  Because interpretation occurs on the writer level as well as the reader level later on, conveying complete truth is impossible.  Still, if the intent is to tell the truth, we can come close to it as writers and readers.

Caro says, “There’s no one truth.”  That reminds me of Platonic Realism and Francis Bacons Idols (I’m teaching Shakespeare this semester; can you tell?).  Platonic realism states that all truth in this realm is a reflection of the ultimate truth elsewhere.  We see versions of truth, shadows of what’s real, and we do our best to capture that.  Bacon indicates that humans try to see the truth, but senses, emotions, and ideologies stand in the way. 

So then, truth and reality come from a formula of intent to tell the truth and not lie, the desire of the reader to understand things as they are, and the credibility and talent of the writer to retell history as it happened without being swayed by personal or historical contexts that would change over time.

Atlas, James. “Stranger Than Fiction.” New York Times Magazine. 23 June 1991.

About Christina M. Rau

Poet, blogger, writer, editor, professor
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